Labour Migration

Not a ‘Positive Development’ but a Manifestation of Inequality

Shankar Ray

The World Bank’s logic that the informal sector “is a safety net” is not only structured on laboured arguments but seems mischievously interpreted too. Prof Jan Breman, noted comparative sociologist who worked extensively among unorganized and migrant workers in south Gujarat as also in the east coast of China, and is now a visiting professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, questioned this imposed perception. “According to the World Bank, one is poor if one earns less than $ 2 a day and $ 1 a day. In Surat, a diamond cutter or polisher on an average earns Rs 125 a day against previous rate of Rs 250 a day, due to the recession in the diamond market abroad. On an average, a worker has seven dependants. Even when a worker used to earn Rs 250 a day, the per head income to survive is a little more than Rs 30 which means a little more than half a dollar”, Prof Breman stated. He was speaking at the Sashipada Bandyopadhyay Resource Centre on 9 September at Jodhpur Park in Kolkata.
Dr Breman who had stints as Chair in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam (UA), Professor at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam and scientific director, CASA (a joint venture of the UA and Free University for post-graduate studies) undertook anthropological field studies in south Gujarat, West Java, and lately in the east coast of China, observed the collateral damage due to migrations of rural people. His talk focused on this aspect, especially the conspicuous impoverishment of migrants. The Bank’s false corporate communications propaganda that migration connotes ‘positive development’ is crystal clear, the Dutch academic asserted with irrefutable data. 
The 73-year-old sociologist strongly refuted the notion that India and China have been somewhat immunized from the global meltdown. Anywhere between 120 and 150 million people in China had to leave their rural workplace and become migrants. “They have been torn loose, with reduced daily earnings. These migrants are mostly male. They are no different from migrants in India. The labour migration separated male members (mostly) from their families.” All this witnessed an aggravation of miseries of rural people as a direct outcome of globalization. Migrants of China are “no different from those in New Delhi, Mumbai or Ranchi.” Breman described globalization as “a post-capitalist dynamic, anti-hierarchical materialist system”.
The media reports and analyses on the meltdown, which was actually an abject failure of credit-based consumerism and ephemeral prosperity  thereof,  has a middle-class bias and confined to capital and investment market trends, at the most hovering on  the effect on labour and employment. Breman criticized this ‘class-bias’ which ignored the phenomenal expansion of migration from the countryside to urban locations. This led to a great augmentation of penury with the creation of a vast army of low-paid unorganized workers, pushed increasingly to economic uncertainties. True, recession hit nation-states and ‘owners of capital’, but the effect of neo-liberal growth hit tens of thousands of people who lost their relatively stable means of livelihoods. China and India, pampered as emerging industrial giants by apologists of neo-liberal imperialism among economists and political economists, have been seriously affected. There is a catch here; unlike in south Gujarat and other places, Breman saw no child labour or illiterates among migrants in eastern coasts of China. However, following a query from this writer, (according to Chinese official statement, 6 per cent of GDP come from prostitution and there is child prostitution as well), he pointed out that he was not speaking for all of China.
Breman stressed the disturbing growth of inequality, reflected in the over-swelling of migrants. “The level of pauperization”, he said, has gone up as the direct consequence of globalization. Basing his observations on his extensive field studies in Gujarat, Maharashtra, National Capital Region and Jharkhand, he questioned the claim that poverty has gone down in India. “Migration is the ma-baap of inequality”, he quipped.
Breman’s observations once again prove one of Marx’s formulation on “relative impoverishment of proletariat” under capitalism (“Increasing Misery of Proletariat”). In his 1954 Ph.D. Thesis entitled Share of Wages in National Income, submitted at the North Holland School of Economics in Netherlands, Dr Ashok Mitra inferred that the “relative share of labour did not decline in capitalist countries”. Prefacing the publication of his thesis in 1980 by OUP, Dr Mitra, then Finance Minister of the first Left Front government in West Bengal, asserted that his dissertation  “remains of some significance to its author”, thus avowing the conclusion drawn in his thesis earlier. Actually, the basis on which Dr Mitra’s negates Marx’s inference on relative penury remains questionable. He has drawn on studies such as A L Bowley’s “Wages  and Income in the United Kingdom since 1860”, in which Bowley et al base their analyses on the share of labour in national income instead of contrasting real wages to the index of labour productivity. In a study entitled “The Working Class and Social Progress” (Moscow 1978) Soviet scholar T Timofiev showed that between 1840-49 and 1960-64 the index of labour productivity rose from 40 to 331 while that of real wages went up from 67 to 135, thus proving the decline in relative share of income irrefutably.

And finally, the issues around pauperization engulfing the unorganized sections – including the ‘rural proletariat’ – are, Breman stressed, “more political than economic.” The problems of these marginalised workers must be forcefully brought to the fore in the discourse on economic policy, he asserted.